The Brodhead Administration has decided to dismantle one of the University’s most heralded interdisciplinary initiatives, the Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy, at the end of the academic year. Some within the Administration prefer to say the Institute is going through a “transition,” but after a month-long investigation, we find that terminology is just plain wrong.
After receiving a tip from a Loyal Reader, we interviewed and corresponded with five sources for this report — and we wound up baffled as to why this is occurring, baffled as to who made the decision, and baffled as to who was consulted. We asked Huntington Willard, director of the Institute, for an interview but he demurred.
We expect the activities of the Institute — its personnel, its grants and its research — to be parceled out among individual academic departments. That, of course, is just the opposite of the trend fostered by President Brodhead and his administration to bring scholars from various disciplines together. Indeed, this trend has become so established here that Uncle Dick and his team frequently cite it for making Duke unique among universities.The website of the Institute contains a forward written by its director, Willard, when he first came to Duke in 2003. “The Institute presents Duke’s response to the dizzying array of developments that have emerged in the genome sciences. Thus, our mission involves not only cutting-edge genome science, technology and their applications, but also the deliberate and thoughtful study of the impact that science and technology have on virtually every facet of human activity.
“It is for that reason that the Institute promises to bring together — under one metaphorical roof — scientists, engineers, physicians, lawyers, policymakers, business leaders, economists, ethicists, humanists, and students all across the Duke campus and beyond.”
Willard spoke of a promise; he and the Institute’s faculty delivered.
The Allen Building Mole (pictured on the right, we never offer any identification, not even male or female) furnished us with a copy of a routine review of the Institute after ten years, that is, one year ago. The dismantling — the transition — is inexplicable because the Institute appeared to have won high praise.
It is inexplicable because the scholarly activities of the Institute are self-supporting, winning major grants regularly that have now total more than a quarter billion dollars. Billion, with a B. The Institute does get — according to a source in PTP’s office with knowledge of budgetary matters — about $2.5 million a year for administrative and teaching expenses — but in return the University and its various divisions keep multiples of that sum from the overhead money that is tagged onto every grant.
The dismantling, the transition is inexplicable, too, because no other university with a similar genome institute is attacking its structure.
It was perhaps signaled when Duke Forward was put together; our long-range fund-raising effort had no reference at all to the Institute.
With no cogent explanation at hand, one of our sources wondered if Peter the Provost is merely flexing his muscles before his retirement next June. PTP has said historically that all Institutes — unlike Schools within a university — are designed to be nimble, to serve a specific need and then disappear, and he may be out to prove he can respond to change. In an anomaly, the Institute reports directly to him and not the Chancellor, even though it has a strong medical focus. The Institute for Brain Sciences and the Duke Global Heath Institute also report to PTP.
One source attributed the move to a reach by Nancy Andrews, Dean of the School of Medicine, who has started several genome research projects in individual academic departments that report to her. In justification of this, one source said the study of the genome now occurs in so many areas that all would not fit under one roof.
Moreover, we’re told that since the Institute was founded, the cost of genome research has tumbled so that it is no longer prohibitive aside from areas of the University that have special funding. Weighing in against this is the Eli Broad Institute at Harvard, which we recently wrote about when its founder added another $100 million, bringing its endowment to $700 million. That school’s experience is that genome research does need a dedicated revenue stream.
We did not seek out PTP for comment, as he is one of the members of Team Brodhead who is rude and does not respond to us at all. We fail to understand how PTP’s animosity is serving the best interests of Duke University.
We also did not seek out Dean Andrews, who reports to the Provost.
There has been no public announcement of all this — demolition, transition — but among people who know, there is no shortage of passion for the Institute and questions about what Team Brodhead is doing to it.
All our sources agreed that the cancer research fraud perpetrated by Dr. Anil Potti (left, in picture from “60 Minutes” broadcast) and his mentor, Dr. Joseph Nevins, who formerly were part of the Institute, played no role in its demise. Ironically, their theory that the genome structure of an individual and of a cancer might lead to highly effective treatment seems to have great promise and other researchers are capitalizing on it; for unfathomable reasons, Potti-Nevins fudged their data.
The Institute actually suffered a worse, and little known, setback in January, 2006, when a highly regarded husband and wife team — Drs. Jeffrey Vance and Marget Pericak-Vance — left for the University of Miami, having been promised an $80-million state-financed laboratory.
They took with them 80 members of their scientific team. There is irony here too: while the Duke Institute has since thrived, the Florida effort has been plagued by problems.
Thrived it has. As we noted, since its inception, more than a quarter billion dollars has poured in.
So how many people are involved in the Institute. In a narrow count, 30 faculty, plus 60 professionals, plus staff and undergraduates making the total about 150. But its reach is much deeper, with perhaps 400 or more people from around the University connected in one way or another.
One very well placed source insisted the Institute would retain its policy research and education functions. But another equally well place source disputed that, saying the Institute is dead, though its scraps might be used to put together lifeboats.
The Genome Institute was founded at Duke 11 years ago and it has grown by leaps as has the boundaries of the national human genome project, started almost 20 years ago. From the micro-level of the genome sequence, the scientific vocabulary has added words like transcriptome, proteome, the metabolome and other “omes,” as scientists and medical doctors explored cells, tissues, whole organisms and whole populations.
The Institute has emphasized a global, comprehensive approach to life. As its website says, “So many universities acknowledge a desire to build interdisciplinary scholarship; Duke is one that actually walks the walk.”
The introductory letter on the website from Willard, the Institute director, says, “For us, whose mission is to explore the scientific, ethical, legal, social and policy ramifications of the genome sciences, such unfettered access to our colleagues on campus — anywhere on campus — is both a blessing and a necessity.”
Another point. The Institute wasn’t to be just pure science, but an attempt to translate new knowledge into better treatments and outcomes for patients. Willard again: “The human genome is no longer an abstraction; anyone with a computer and an internet connection is at liberty to peruse our 3.2 billion bases. The question is: So now what? Integral to the Institute’s charge is consideration of the many answers to that question.
“We believe that the genome, particularly when viewed in its environmental context, represents a tremendous opportunity to improve the lot of humanity, especially by using genomic information to individualize health care. Of course, without addressing the policy and community aspects of personalized medicine, it will never become a reality.”
Using the initials for the Institute — IGSP — Willard wrote it is the S linked to the P — science and policy — that helps “distinguish us from others in the field and will allow us to make substantive impact.”
The Institute, started from scratch, grew in its 11 years to a position of great respect, its scientists and doctors published in the best journals. It is on the cusp of knowledge. Significantly, it has welcomed undergraduates into its laboratories and seminars, as DukeCheck learned two years ago when one who was mentored won a Marshall Scholarship.
In some cases, individual departments may not be as welcoming to undergraduates as they take over. And that is a big part of the loss in our judgment.
Potti and Nevins may have gotten the headlines in newspapers and on TV, 60 Minutes and all, but they are not the heart of the Institute. Robert Cook-Deegan has done pioneering work on genomes, genes and intellectual property. Geoff Ginsburg has focused on personalized medicine. And Philip Benfey has had significant accomplishments in the realm of systems biology.
Plus, we surely must mention a cadre of young computational biologists who are making waves nationally.
Loyal Readers, this is an inexplicable loss.
One of our sources suggested that other institutes in the Provost’s office may be ripe for “change” now that ten-year reviews are occurring in all of them.
One source mentioned — another source disputed — that the Social Sciences Research Institute might be on the chopping block. With a newly appointed director who is a strong and effective leader and two newly renovated buildings, the SSRI may be safe at this point, according to the Allen Building Mole.
One source said PTP may be focusing on the institutes because some receive Strategic Investment Pool (SIP) money from his office. Not only are these slush funds in short supply, but Duke Kunshan University is increasingly dependent on them for a lusty part of its subsidy and more and more, we are finding money that once was spent in Durham is being salted away for export to China.
We believe the institute that gets the most SIP is the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, which captures perhaps $3 million in SIP a year. We have been trying for months — long before the situation with the Genome Institute arose — to get an interview with its director.
PTP has been slicing SIP from Trinity College, through the office of the Dean of the Arts and Sciences for some years.
John Payne, the Joseph Ruvane Professor in the Fuqua Business School and formerly chair of the University Priorities Committee, warned in 2012 that SIP commitments exceeded the amount of money flowing into the slush fund. He said “there are places to deal with that,” though he did not hint where the ax might fall.
“But going toward the thing that worries me is that we might not have… enough new money to support the kinds of new initiatives, academic initiatives, that I believe we need to have as a university, to continue and evolve.”
Payne has refused to reveal more; the price that the faculty paid for having one of its members included in top level discussions was to have the professor sworn to secrecy, not even able to discuss matters with other faculty members.
The other Institutes under the Provost are the Kenan Institute for Ethnics and the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute.
Kenan is considered safe because it has is own endowment. We advise all others to duck.
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